Courses with the Lid Off

I’ve started to have panic attacks about my summer teaching.

The Spring term ended last week and Summer term begins next week, so I’m in the midst of a too-quick turn-around. Still, I think I have enough time to get my syllabi and other documents in order before I step back into the classroom on Tuesday.

Oh, but what’s in those syllabi gives me the heebie-jeebies!

I am making two significant changes to my course design . . . wait. That’s too polite and constrained a way to put it. Let me try again.

I’m blowing the lid off my courses, with two explosive charges.

First, I am getting rid of the three-part structure on which I had been relying, in which groups work on three separate projects, each of which is followed by a writing assignment for individual students.

Instead, groups will work for the entire term on a big, slightly messy, much more open-ended and creative project, with individual writing assignments along the way in which students consider the ethical implications of particular decisions.

In my engineering ethics course, the project is to design a “playable interactive narrative” (that is, a game). In the syllabus, I describe the project like so:

Groups of up to six students will each develop and present a playable interactive narrative that is to be made freely available online. The specifications for the assignment are set out in a separate document, but the general idea is to engage the player as the protagonist in the story of an engineer who is entangled in a messy, open-ended situation in which important ethical values are at stake and the path forward is not at all clear. The narrative should have a branching structure, such that choices made by the player affect the outcome of the story.

We will work in stages, with a number of group presentations along the way: 1) overview and context, 2) characters, 3) plot outline and critical decisions, leading up to a final group presentation and demo. Group presentations will be assessed by the other students in the class, and each individual student’s contributions will be assessed by her or his group mates.

I haven’t yet worked out the details of the project for my environmental ethics course, but it’s shaping up to be some sort of “ethical briefing”: a document or other production that will introduce a particular audience to the ethical complexities of a particular problem situation, bringing to light the various systems that intertwine in shaping the situation and the various ethical values implicated in plausible responses to the situation.

What feels risky about this is that it leaves so may lines on the schedule blank: what we do in class on any given day will depend entirely on what groups need in order to complete their projects and what individuals need in order to consider the ethical implications of decisions and to reflect on their own learning in the course.

Second, I am getting out of the business of grading assignments.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. What I mean is that I will no longer assign point-values to this or that aspect of something a group or an individual student hands in.

I had been considering “contract grading” or “specifications grading” (Nilson and Stanny 2015) – the latter approach seems to fit well with the design of my courses – but still I had doubts.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself grading an especially inadequate piece of writing handed in by a student. It was brief. It was perfunctory. It did not really even bother to follow the most basic instructions of the assignment.

And yet, there I sat, dutifully writing comments and figuring out how much partial credit the paper might merit according to the rubric . . . and I knew that this particular student would write to me almost immediately to try to wheedle a few more points out of me.

Then, it hit me: I have to get out of the point-brokerage business.

So here’s what I plan to do (according to the syllabus):

Final grades for the course are based on a specifications grading scheme. In short, all assignments will be assessed as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory in light of specifications set out in advance: if an assignment meets all of the specifications, it is satisfactory; if it falls short of any one of them, it is unsatisfactory.

Final grades for the course will be determined by the number and level of assignments you complete satisfactorily, as follows:

  • Basic Group Work, which consists of active engagement (as verified by peer assessment within the group) in each phase of group project and in submission of a satisfactory final product
  • Basic Group Work
  • One (1) Individual Consideration
  • Basic Group Work
  • Two (2) Individual Considerations
  • One (1) Extension Activity
  • Basic Group Work
  • Two (2) Individual Considerations
  • Two (2) Extension Activities
  • Final Reflective Portfolio

Note that peer assessment and self-assessment play an important role in the course. As instructor of record, I have the final say in whether a given assignment is satisfactory in meeting the appropriate specifications, but in the case of considerations and the final group product I will take peer assessment and self-assessment into account.

Note also that, as already stated, each student will have two (2) opportunities to revise and resubmit an individual consideration, accompanied by a new self-assessment.

I’ve described the consideration exercises elsewhere. An extension activity is

a critical reflection on an ethics-related activity beyond the work of the course itself. There are many possibilities: attend a public lecture, analyze a real-world case study, read an article or book, play an interactive narrative game, and so on; feel free to ask me for ideas and for prior approval.

The specifications for the extension activity are set out in a separate document, but the general idea is to reflect on how your work in the course informed your understanding of the activity, how the activity expanded or deepened your understanding of the work of the course, or both.

The final reflective portfolio is to consist of “annotated copies of all individual writings submitted for assessment and a substantial reflection on your own learning in the course.”

So there they are: two courses that have been blown wide open.

They will either be the best and most enjoyable courses I have ever taught or they will be simultaneous parallel train wrecks.

Or maybe, somehow, both.


Nilson, Linda Burzotta, and Claudia J. Stanny. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2015.

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